The month of Elul is a time in which we pause and reflect upon our past year to engage in teshuva (repentance). I often ask myself: Are we alone in our attempts to change and grow? The Talmud suggests that God actually engages in teshuva (Megillah 29a). Can this radical suggestion that God grows, evolves, adapts with the times, and experiences redemption pass as an authentic Jewish theology?
The Torah itself states that a living God does teshuva according to Rashi’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 30:3. A dynamic and evolving Shekhinah (Divine presence) goes into exile and returns with us from exile (uva l’tzion goel) only when we restore the divine presence to the lower world and heal our relationship with God. Additionally, the Midrash, on countless occasions, suggests times where God changes positions, feels regret, learns from humanity, and even destroys previous worlds that prove to be a mistake.
Many of these stories should not be read literally but others may warrant the right to be interpreted literally when the spiritual truth exceeds logic. Rav Bachya Ibn Pakuda, the great 11th century Jewish neo-platonic mystic, argued that the “duties of the heart” are on a separate plane from rational natural physical reality. Certain truths can only be understood on an emotional and spiritual level. One is to “know God” with the heart.
This teshuva is not a response to divine sin as that would not jibe with traditional understandings of God. Rather it is in search of an evolved completeness, a wholeness that expands from 10/10 to 100/100 to infinite/infinite. God is the aggregate of power and good in the world and this aggregate can grow but God is always the total.
The great 20th century Jewish theologian Eliezer Berkowitz suggested that using moral attributes to describe God is not a sign of anthropomorphism. Rather attributes such as compassion, love, and justice are divine before they are human. Teshuva is a divine process before it becomes a human imperative.
God is absolutely free and free will is the constitutive means to all teshuva. In repentance, divine energy reinvigorates the world by the emanation of divine blessing (shefa) and divine self revelation emerges in every moment and being. In this teshuva, the divine essence (atzmut) remains constant but God’s relationship to creation evolves as certain divine dimensions are affected by human action and moved in the direction of total synthesis and unity. It is only with this necessary human partnership that God’s expansion and healing is brought into the world.
Rav Kook explains that the Divine can be experienced as a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting colors, describing not only a human phenomenological encounter but reality itself. God is intimately connected with humankind and hears and responds to our brokenness and scattered spiritual state (pizur hanfesh). Thus monotheism is not static but is dynamic and changing where the ten divine manifestations are constantly expressed and renewed. Reality does not exist as a non changing physical substance but is manifested as evolving experience.
Some have rejected the possibility of God changing as it may imply fallibility; however, change is not synonymous with failure. To state that God is not capable of expanding, growing, and adapting would be to limit divine omnipotence. Perfection is not static or stale; perfection is a state of constant growth, in which possibility continues to reach newer and higher actualization. One sphere of actualization is the Sabbath when God’s presence is manifest and healed in the world.
According to the Habad concept of dirah batahtonin, G-d dwells in the earthly realm enabling interconnectivity between physical and spiritual dimensions of reality.
God contains the universe but is more than the universe. If the world evolves then God evolves as God is in relationship to a progressing universe and is affected by humans while the foundational Divine virtues remain the same. In a very real way, God’s presence is expanded into the world when humans do holy acts achieving Yihudah Ilaah (higher unity) and Yihudah taata (lower unity).
I can no longer wrestle with theologies that seem logically sound but lack the capacity to open the heart.
One test for theological truth is if the soul is transformed when the truth is embraced.
Another test is whether it speaks to global injustice as the tradition teaches that tikkun olam is a divine-human partnership. In a world where billions of people live in poverty, orphans are put into slavery, and widows are raped, I can only relate to an immanent God that cries and suffers alongside us (imo anokhi b’tzara) who continues to experiment with the right balance of bestowed human determinism and freedom. The divine brokenness accompanies the journey of human brokenness and together we heal.
Why do I connect with a God that cries and changes? For me, if God is in captivity and exile with us and is redeemed along with us then there can be a real relationship. If God suffers along with all the oppressed victims of injustice then our liberations are bound up with one another and our experiences of immanence and alienation are intertwined.
If the capacity to do teshuva represents the pinnacle of the human condition then certainly repentance is a process in which we are to emulate God (“halakhta b’drakhav”). If the commandment to imitate the just ways of God were not to include self-improvement this mitzvah would be lacking as theology would be divorced from human actualization. God is an ideal for us only if we can actually emulate the divine ways. This image of God as One who grows, cries, and seeks liberation and unification motivates me ethically.
It is this understanding of God that has changed my life. One of the main reasons that God is rarely mentioned in Jewish social justice circles today is because our religious culture often retreats to abstractions rather than embracing theological models that are spiritually transformative and help to make us better. How many more Jews will we turn away from Judaism with irrelevant theology because it conforms to some medieval notion of logic?
Rav Kook taught that we are responsible for expanding, beautifying, and celebrating God’s presence in this world. One way this is achieved is by seeking human healing and ensuring the progress of the human enterprise of creating a just and holy world. We cannot abandon the possibility of human and societal progress so easily and God can serve as our reminder and motivation that a better future for the oppressed is to come.
Rav Zev Wolf of Zhitomir explained that we cannot reach God’s unity until we recover our own. Elul is not just a time for self help books and the Rav’s “On Repentance” but also a time to look to the heavens and emulate dynamic growth and actualization as we work to heal a fractured world.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.